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Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2004 / 21 Elul, 5764

Roger Simon

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Two conventions — one bounce | If John Kerry loses his presidential bid, analysts will point to the Democratic Convention as the time and place that he began losing it.

Kerry made his convention — just as he has made his campaign — about Vietnam, a divisive, controversial war that most Americans would just as soon forget.

From high-profile appearances and endorsements by his fellow swift boat veterans to the salute he gave at the beginning of his acceptance speech, the convention seemed to be about events that happened more than three decades ago and not events that are happening now.

Nor did Kerry use his acceptance speech to clear the air about a fundamental problem that his campaign faces and that his opponents beat him over the head with on a daily basis: Kerry's seemingly conflicting votes over the Iraq war.

By comparison, the Republican convention was anchored in the present with one clear and simple message: Vote for George W. Bush — or die.

Every speaker that I can recall (with the exception of Laura Bush) gave the same speech and that speech told the same story: We live in times of grave peril and only George W. Bush can safeguard the homeland from it. Turning this nation over to a vacillating and na´ve challenger, speaker after speaker said, would be tantamount to national suicide.

Even the so-called social moderates in the party — Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, to some extent, John McCain — made this point.

In addition, they were adept at rewriting recent history to suit current political necessity: Speaker after speaker at the Republican Convention said we had invaded Iraq in order to topple an evil dictator.

I don't remember it that way. I remember the Bush administration saying we had to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein had vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and was, therefore, a clear and present danger to the region and the world.

The second re-writing of history that took place at the convention was even more convenient: We toppled Saddam Hussein in order to combat terrorism and punish those who attacked our country on Sept. 11. Yet critics point out that no link between Saddam and the Sept. 11 attacks has ever been proven and that, in fact, by re-directing our forces away from Afghanistan to fight in Iraq, we may have weakened our assault on al Qaeda and terrorism.

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In any case, the argument for re-electing Bush having been made in such hot-button terms by others, Bush could afford to give a calm, cool, personable acceptance speech that strengthened the view that whatever his failings, he is a reasonable and likeable leader.

The bounce he got out of his convention and his speech was, according to Time and Newsweek, a very impressive 11 percent (pollsters had told us such a big bounce was impossible because there are so few undecided voters, but pollsters are often wrong) and while that margin may soon fade, it is bad news for the flailing Kerry campaign.

The same mistake that beset Kerry in the beginning stages of the Democratic primaries — failure to defend himself often and early from the attacks of Howard Dean — has beset him again: Failure to react quickly and vigorously to the attacks of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, depending instead on the responsibility of the media (ho-ho) to refuse to publicize the largely false accusations.

Kerry is now busy trying to solve the problem by adding new staffers to his campaign — getting rid of people would lead to bad publicity, so an already swollen staff is growing even more bloated — though some fear a larger staff will mean an even slower response time.

Kerry is far from out of this race — bad economics at home and the quagmire that is the occupation of Iraq are his allies — but he needs to be more nimble and more focused and make some kind of emotional connection with voters.

Kerry can also keep talking about Vietnam if he wants to, but I have a feeling most voters would much rather hear him talk about tomorrow than yesterday.

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